The Iraqi armed forces, backed by Soviet-built tanks and helicopter gunships, today fought their way into the suburbs of the Iranian city of Susangerd in the biggest military battle of the two-month-old Persian Gulf war.
The Iraqi high command claimed that 482 Iranians were killed in the last 24 hours, most of them around Susangerd. The figure, almost double the highest previous Iraqi casualty claim for a single day of the war, brought to more than 1,000 the number of Iranians claimed killed in the battle for Susangerd, which began Friday. The communique said that 46 Iraqi soldiers were killed in the last 36 hours.
Iran claimed, however, that Revolutionary Guards defending Susangerd killed 500 Iraqi troops while losing just 30 of their own men. The Iranians charged that the Iraqi troops committed atrocities in the attack on Susangerd, raped women and used "chemical weapons" that caused blisters and "spread germs."
Each side said it inflicted heavy losses of tanks and equipment on the other.None of the claims could be verified independently.
The claims came as Kuwait, Iraq's neighbor to the south, said that Iranian planes had rocketed and strafed Kuwaiti territory near the Iraqi border for the second time in a week.
Iraqi military sources said privately earlier in the week, after the first such Kuwaiti complaint, that Kuwait had not been rocketed, but than an Iranian Phantom jet damaged by antiaircraft fire near the port of Basra had crashed inside Kuwait. There was no indication whether today's claimed Iranian attack on Kuwait was the result of another crashing Iranian jet.
Military analysts here viewed the intense battle for the small provincial city along the Karkheh River as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's ambitious gamble to finally nail down a significant battlefield victory in the drawn-out war before next week's Arab summit in Amman, Jordan, and before oncoming winter rains make any future major military moves in Iran impractical.
Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat began a tour today to persuade Arab countries to postpone the summit, news services reported from Beirut. Arafat flew from the Syrian capital, Damascus, to Saudi Arabia for talks with King Khalid. Syria has asked that the summit be put off because it would aggravate Arab differences over the Iranian-Iraqi war.
In communiques from their respective capitals, both Iran and Iraq admitted today that for the third straight day a major battle was under way for control of Susangerd, a town of about 30,000 inhabitants 20 miles inside Iran's oil-producing Khuzestan Province on the road to the provincial capital of Ahwaz, 35 miles farther southeast.
The official Tehran radio said in an early-morning broadcast that the city's Islamic Revolutionary Guards had been reinforced by elite airborne Army units. The radio admitted, however, that the Iraqis had succeeded in penetrating the city limits from the east early this morning and were "slaughtering" Susangerd's defenders and inhabitants in hand-to-hand combat.
A victory in Susangerd would open up the western flank of Ahwaz, which has been under artillery assault for seven weeks from a full Iraqi division. The division has been inching from the south along the paved road that leads from the Iranian port of Khorramshahr, which the Iraqis finally seem to have completely overrun a week ago after seven weeks of pounding by artillery.
The Iraqi military high command, in its 143rd communique of the war, claimed that of the record 482 Iranians it said had been killed in the last 24 hours, 430 of them were slain around Suangerd. The Iraqis said that 30 of the latter were drowned in the Karkheh River north of the beleaguered city when they tried to escape after their positions were overrun.
Susangerd, like several other Khuzestan cities, was originally reported to have been captured by the Iraqis within a week of their military thrust into Iran Sept. 23.
Tehran radio said today that the city's defenders had managed to hold off the Iraqi thrusts from the southwest and west, despite heavy artillery shelling and machine-gun fire.
Later Tehran radio said that "a large number of enemy forces" backed by tanks had entered the city's eastern section and were "advancing house to house."
In a rare admission of their own failings, Iran's official Pars News Agency reported that the reason for the Iraqis' success in attacking the city was Iran's own "lack of artillery support" to stave them off.
Meanwhile, the Iraqis claimed to have shot down five Iranian aircraft -- including one helicopter gunship -- over the war front today.
Diplomatic analysts in the Iraqi capital said that President Saddam Hussein was clearly pushing his forces for a major victory that could reinforce his influence and clout among his fellow Arab heads of state when and if they meet as scheduled in Amman Nov. 25.
Whether the summit actually goes ahead as planned is still a matter of debate and conjecture.
Syrian President Hafez Assad, Saddam Hussein's Arab Baath Socialist Party rival, has requested that the conference he postponed because of the Iraqi-Iranian war, which has split the Arab world.
The Syrian request, now being sounded in Arab capitals by Arab League Secretary General Chadli Klibi, is supported by Libya, Algeria, South Yemen and the PLO.
The first real indication of the summit's prospects is expected when Arab foreign ministers gather in Amman Tuesday for preparatory talks. Although such nations as Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others have insisted that the summit he held as planned, the foreign ministers will have to assess whether the climate is ripe is for such a meeting or whether it should be put off until there is more harmony among Arab leaders.
Saddam Hussein is determined that the the summit be held so he can present himself as the true leader of the Arab world and defender of the Islamic faith in an effort to gain support for his war against the non-Arab Persians of Iran. He has vowed to wage a "jihad, or holy war, against the Iranians because of their alleged transgression from what he has interpreted as the "true" word of Islam's founder, the Prophet Mohammed.